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Northwestern just scratching surface under Collins

Updated: February 5, 2014 12:10AM



Northwestern’s performance in nonconference play easily can be forgotten. That was a different team than the one that’s tied for fourth in the Big Ten and has won three consecutive road games.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the NCAA tournament selection committee won’t forget.

Losses to Illinois State and DePaul are too glaring to overcome. Add in double-digit losses to Stanford, Missouri, UCLA and North Carolina State, and the Wildcats’ Big Ten season was moot before it started.

This won’t be the year for Northwestern to make its first NCAA tournament appearance. That isn’t to dismiss what’s been a shocking Big Ten season for the Wildcats (12-11, 5-5). The fact that their tournament resume even is being discussed shows the program has made progress while in transition.

“We wouldn’t have been talking about this three weeks ago, and I’m just trying to stay grounded with it all,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said.

“You can never get caught up when things are going really well, and you can’t get too down when they’re not going well.”

There hasn’t been much middle ground for Northwestern. After going 7-6 in nonconference play, the Wildcats lost their first three Big Ten games by at least 23 points. Since then, they’ve won five of seven.

But remember, Northwestern went through a rebirth when Collins arrived on campus. A new offense, a new defense and a new culture.

This program is still in its infancy. The Wildcats are like a baby walking long before anyone expected. They still will trip along the way.

But even when that happens, the latest streak has shown potential that’s difficult to ignore.

“We have people’s attention,” Collins said. “I think maybe some of the games earlier we took some teams by surprise. Nobody’s taken anyone lightly, but maybe some teams didn’t think we were capable of doing what we could do.”

Just because this team won’t end college basketball’s longest streak of futility and make the NCAA tournament, there shouldn’t be any doubt that Collins will get this program there.

That much was apparent in his first few months on the job when he began to assemble the best recruiting class the university has seen. And on the court, you could see how Alex Olah and Tre Demps had benefitted from Collins’ coaching, even while they struggled.

This might not be the year, but athletic director Jim Phillips has found the guy.

That might be frustrating for a postseason-starved fan base. But like any growing program, there isn’t immediate gratification with success. It needs to be sustained.

Collins probably gave the best advice when he said to stay grounded even though the team is playing well. After all, Northwestern is only halfway through the conference season.

Around this time, it’s been common practice for this program to look to the future anyway.

But with Collins at the helm, it looks as bright as ever.

Email: sgruen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SethGruen



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